An Arizona congresswoman filed legislation Wednesday to ensure that a group of female World War II pilots can have their ashes laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery. The pilots known as Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASPs, flew military aircraft in noncombat roles during wartime to free up male pilots for combat. The women were considered civilians until Congress retroactively granted them veteran status in 1977. Since then, the women have been permitted to have their ashes placed at Arlington, the cemetery in northern Virginia overlooking the nation's capital. And since 2002 they have been eligible for placement with military honors. But last year, then-Secretary of the Army John McHugh rescinded their eligibility. In a memo, he said lawyers had determined they should never have been allowed in Arlington in the first place.
Rep. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., said the Army's exclusion of WASPs is wrong and filed legislation to reverse McHugh's decision. The family of WASP Elaine Harmon, who died last year at 95, has been waging a campaign to restore the rules granting WASPs the right to be placed at Arlington. An AP article last week about the family's campaign prompted widespread criticism of the Army for excluding WASPs. A petition on change.org sponsored by the Harmon family has now received more than 31,000 signatures. Harmon's family says the WASPs or their relatives aren't asking for special treatment, only the same rights that would have been afforded to them if they had been recognized as a military unit from the beginning. But Army officials say WASPs still don't qualify, despite their retroactive status as veterans. Click for more on the controversy. (Read more Arlington National Cemetery stories.)